Saving furry friends gets tougher

J.C. Commeville and his wife have run their nonprofit no-kill shelter for more than 20 years

Wade Spees

COTTAGEVILLE — For more than 20 years, abandoned dogs and strays have taken refuge at J.C. Commeville's animal shelter.

Some of them stay there for years, living the good life chasing squirrels until someone adopts them. Because the GBSI Animal Refuge is a no-kill shelter, there was never a time limit.

But these days, the economy even affects those whose biggest worries used to be fleas.

In the past year, GBSI (the initials stand for the names of former pets) has lost its biggest donor and most of its investments because of the stock market meltdown.

Now, Commeville doesn't have the money to feed his 85 dogs and fears he's going to be forced to euthanize them so they don't starve.

"Playing God is not my cup of tea," he said Monday. "I'm trying everything I can to save them."

Commeville is not alone. Across the country, demand for animal shelter services is at an all-time high, and donations have dropped off dramatically, sometimes more than 20 percent. Some people who have donated previously to local shelters are forced now to turn in their own animals because they can't afford to feed them.

Commeville operates his shelter out of his house, which cuts down on costs significantly. Still, he needs $35,000 to keep the animals fed and pay their medical bills. And Commeville, retired and on a fixed income himself, just doesn't have it.

Shelter operators across the Lowcountry are at maximum capacity and facing hard decisions on what, if anything, they can do without. Berkeley County PAWS in Moncks Corner saves money by not maintaining an office — all its animals are kept in foster homes until they are adopted. But these days, foster families are handling all they can.

To stem the number of pets that need a home, PAWS — like other shelters — offers significantly reduced fees for spaying and neutering. But that takes money, something no nonprofit has in abundance these days.

"Donations have been down with the economy like it is," said Marguerite Kirby, vice president of Berkeley County PAWS. "I can't complain. We are still getting some, but it could be better."

The Charleston Animal Society, a nonprofit shelter in North Charleston, has seen its donations drop between 18 percent and 20 percent in the first half of this year. That's significant — nearly 75 percent of its $2.6 million budget comes from donations. The rest comes from the county, which pays the shelter to handle critters picked up by animal control.

Basically, the Animal Society is nearly $400,000 short in donations. And ticket sales for its annual fundraiser, "A Furry Affair," are lagging behind last year's levels. It's just the way things are in this economy.

"The demand for our services is up, and the money is getting tougher to come by," said Jim Bush, executive director of the Charleston Animal Society. "We can get in up to 50 animals a day. To stay ahead, you have to adopt out more than you take in, and that's just not possible right now."

Commeville hopes some donations come in to help GBSI Animal Refuge remain open a while longer. He said adoptions are down, not only because of the economy but also because many of his dogs are mixed breeds and most folks are looking for purebreds.

"We've got a lot of misfits, but to me they are the most beautiful dogs in the world," Commeville said.

And that only makes the prospects of what he might have to do even harder.